Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is back in Damascus after leaving the country in October due to concerns about his safety. In announcing his return, the State Department said he is to engage "with the full spectrum of Syrian society" and that his presence will "send the message that the United States stands with the people." The suggestion is that President Bashar al-Assad is irrelevant; the Syrians are Ford's clients.
Ford is our first true post-WikiLeaks ambassador. An Arab-speaking career diplomat, he impressively embraced the Syrian people as they defied Assad's brutality. And they loved him for that.
Ford's mission to engage the people and bypass traditional state-to-state interactions is no aberration. WikiLeaks' disclosure of secret cables confirmed a transformation in diplomatic efforts.
Efforts to engage the people are occurring partly because our military options are spent. The tools we have to express dismay at governments are now the statements and actions of a diplomatic corps that was sidelined by a decade of war.
Ford is not only returning to a brutal nation; the United States is forgoing the more dramatic but too conclusive gesture of ending our mission there. In the absence of bombs, we give you Ford.
Meanwhile, our second post-WikiLeaks ambassador, Gary Locke, has become a rock star in China. Locke, the former commerce secretary and first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing, flies commercial class and carries his own backpack in a nation used to official excesses. He made headlines when he stood in line for an hour to tour of the Great Wall.
Apparently, this is making the Chinese government look bad. China has launched a discrediting campaign against Locke, suggesting that his humility is an act.
Locke serves as a counterweight to the political silly season in America. Republicans' talk of getting "tough" on China may be good politics, but it's not good policy. The futures of the United States and China are inextricably tied. And while the Obama administration's recent moves to counter Chinese military capabilities may fall into the getting "tough" category, Locke has better things to do - like buying his own coffee at a Beijing Starbucks as shocked Chinese snap pictures.
The WikiLeaks cables suggested U.S. diplomats were more than passive observers. Sure, they had to act as objective liaisons and party hosts, but they were engaged with the people of host nations. The problem was that all this was secret.
The new openness may be the nature of today's wired global community, or perhaps WikiLeaks was a strange liberation. Hundreds of ambassadors and liaisons are engaging people power.